LAWRENCE, N.J.- The Shared Services Conference convened by Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes today at Mercer County Community College was successful in its goals of informing representatives of available programs and stirring discussion on the how to combine services to cut costs in the future.
Hughes, who called for the conference in order to identify areas where the County and its municipalities can join services to save taxpayer money, opened the half-day workshop by urging the audience to "think outside the box."
"People are asking how to stop the over-reliance on property taxes here in the State of New Jersey," Hughes told more than 100 representatives from the public and private sectors Wednesday at the Conference Center at MCCC. "I believe in another way of approaching this problem-that is to have dialogue about how to drive down costs by sharing services and reducing expenses."
Two panels comprised of County, municipal, and school officials covered a wide array of government services that are ripe for consolidation or cost-sharing, and panelists also informed the audience of shared services initiatives already underway.
Following the panel discussions, keynote speaker John Rasimowicz of the state Division of Local Government Services detailed available state grants and feasibility studies for shared services.
The first panel, "Public Works and Public Safety," addressed the roles of these functions in government from the perspectives of the County transportation, parks, and emergency management offices, the Mercer County Improvement Authority and the County Prosecutor's Office.
Panelists described programs where services are already shared among multiple agencies. The County Office of Emergency Management is building a countywide radio system, for instance, while the Transportation Department operates the T.R.A.D.E. shuttle service for the disabled and elderly in all Mercer municipalities.
At the Prosecutor's Office, in addition to investigating and prosecuting crime, it also assists municipalities, school districts, and other agencies in cleaning up vacant lots, provides speakers from law enforcement to educate kids and seniors on staying safe, and uses forfeiture funds to purchase law enforcement equipment for towns.
"Many people don't know that the Prosecutor's Office can be a clearinghouse," said panelist Janetta Marbrey, Deputy First Assistant Prosecutor. "This doesn't cost a dime. Shared services means not only getting good services but good, economical services."
The panel also concluded inventory lists among County departments and related municipal departments are the fastest way to share services, equipment, and personnel.
The second panel, "Interagency Services," focused on how school districts have teamed up with either one another or municipalities to prevent overlapping services. It also covered information technology, geographic information systems (GIS), and purchasing and procurement.
Both the County IT and Planning Departments are currently creating countywide systems to better manage paper and electronic records and mapping. Both of these initiatives, panelists said, would make it easier and faster for government agencies to locate and identify resources. In turn, business relationships with vendors and contractors would become more efficient.
In some areas, such as a countywide communications system, savings for municipalities could reach 25 percent. Within IT, shared services opportunities also exist in management of elections and tax records.
The County's Cooperative Pricing System, meanwhile, acts as a central database for members who are searching for products or equipment at the lowest cost. A purchasing coop based on this model is currently being formed.
Sharing a countywide GIS system also benefits both the County and agencies within because the participating municipalities could add or update information on the system independently, saving County taxpayer dollars that would normally be spent on keeping the system up to date. The cost of the software is minimal in comparison.
The Mercer County Special Services School District served as a prime example of how services could be combined without losing productivity. A single superintendent has been installed in place of two superintendent positions in the past, reducing administrative overhead but maintaining the same level of funding for students.
And at the Ewing School District, services from construction to maintenance to IT are shared with the township, greatly cutting overall costs for both.
A central theme of both panels was cooperation with state, County, and local partners.
"The only way to maximize our resources is to open up the lines of communication," said Aaron T. Watson, the County's DOT Director.
As an example, Hamilton Township Department of Public Works Director Richard Balgowan spoke about his department's recent need to create a pond at a township property. Rather than purchasing the heavy equipment necessary or putting the project out to bid, Balgowan simply borrowed the machine and personnel from the County.
"Sometimes just a phone call can help meet your needs," he said.
Rasimowicz, the keynote speaker, reiterated that point and urged all in attendance to take advantage of all the State's shared services offerings. He said feasibility studies that can help local governments find areas where sharing can work are free and can be done at any time. Applications for grants to share services are also accepted on a rolling basis and are usually reviewed within 10 days, Rasimowicz said.
In 2006, millions of dollars in grant money went to shared services like combined policing, stormwater management, regional health departments, and municipal courts, Rasimowicz said.
Dr. Patricia C. Donohue, president of MCCC, gave opening remarks at the conference and introduced County Executive Hughes.
Representatives on the first panel were: Aaron Watson, County Director of Transportation and Infrastructure; Dean Raymond, County Emergency Management Coordinator; Kevin Bannon, Executive, County Park Commission; Janetta Marbrey, Deputy First Assistant Prosecutor; Richard Balgowan, Director of Public Works, Hamilton Township; and moderator Phil Miller, Executive Director, MCIA.
Representatives on the second panel were: Chuck Gregory, County Director of Information Technology; Marcella Longo, County Director of Purchasing; Matt Lawson, County Principal Planner; Dr. Kimberly Schneider, Superintendent, Mercer County Special Services School District; Raymond Broach, Superintendent, Ewing Township School District; and moderator Michael Klavon, Superintendent, Mercer County School System.